Born in 1941 in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Ramón Luis Ramírez Toro, a.k.a “Chamaco” (‘kid’) Ramírez, is a somewhat obscure sonero today. However, among hardcore fans he is known for his signature composition “Trucutú” and his interpretation of Curet Alonso’s “Plante Bandera.” If Ramírez had never done anything else, his recordings in the 1960s and 70s with Tommy Olivencia alone should have been enough to cause him to be held in the highest esteem. They are some of the best salsa tunes ever put to wax. ...MORE >
Born in 1941 in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Ramón Luis Ramírez Toro, a.k.a “Chamaco” (‘kid’) Ramírez, is a somewhat obscure sonero today. However, among hardcore fans he is known for his signature composition “Trucutú” and his interpretation of Curet Alonso’s “Plante Bandera.” If Ramírez had never done anything else, his recordings in the 1960s and 70s with Tommy Olivencia alone should have been enough to cause him to be held in the highest esteem. They are some of the best salsa tunes ever put to wax. Yet his tragically short solo career, occasional stints in jail, penchant for crime to support his drug habit, and momentary disappearances from the scene (ending in his untimely death in 1983), have contributed to his remaining largely unrecognized in the pantheon of salsa greats.
Like Héctor Lavoe and Lalo Rodríguez, Chamaco Ramírez had that incredible high-pitched nasal voice that could send chills up the spine. Like Ismael Rivera, Chamaco had a way with improvising lyrics, word play, and rhythmic delivery. Like José “Cheo” Feliciano, Ramírez painted portraits of people in the barrio because he was “of the street” himself. And as with all of these more famous Boricuas, Chamaco had trouble with drugs, and in the end, that’s what did him in. Yet unlike them, he did not really get the proper recognition due to someone with his caliber of talent.
In a recent interview, Cuban pianist, composer, and arranger Javier Vázquez related that he was in the middle of working on Ismael Rivera’s next album (later released in 1980 as Maelo – El Sonero Mayor) in December of 1978 when sessions had to be halted due to Rivera’s difficulty singing because of painful polyps on his throat. Vázquez had been the musical director and arranger for Rivera’s backing band Los Cachimbos since the early 70s. Fania label boss Jerry Masucci called Javier up with a solution for replacing Rivera, which was to bring in Chamaco because of similarities between the two singers. In fact, the two men were good friends and Ramírez looked up to Maelo as a mentor. According to Chamaco’s sister, Rivera and Ramírez had become close in Puerto Rico’s notorious Oso Blanco prison years earlier, forming a vocal group together while behind bars. It was hoped a recording session could fill in the gap in Fania’s Ismael Rivera catalog. However, rather than sing over the already completed music tracks from the aborted Maelo date, a whole new project was launched instead, the result being that Vázquez ended up producing from start to finish, hand-picking a band, setting up the studio dates, and arranging Ramírez’ first—and last—solo album, Alive And Kicking (1979).
Chamaco’s most recent studio recording had been with bandleader Olivencia in the mid-70s. Some time after, he had slipped off to Chicago, and that is where Masucci tracked him down. Ramírez returned to New York, and over dinner the singer and the producer planned out the album, with Chamaco selecting the songs. All of the musicians and coro vocalists on the sessions were people Vázquez had worked with in the past. Just to keep it fresh, the sound of the band that Vázquez put together was somewhere between the smaller conjunto style of Los Cachimbos and Olivencia’s larger big band orchestra. Unlike the Cachimbos, there would be no tres and the horns would be augmented by a second trumpet (the uncredited Ramón “Chiripa” Aracena) and an additional reed, Mario Rivera (tenor sax). According to Vázquez, Chamaco was enthusiastic, easy to work with, and came to the sessions completely sober. Vázquez mentions that after the album’s release, the two were never able to perform together live to support it, as he was too busy with other gigs and Chamaco was “not doing dances.” Sadly, the chemistry that had worked so well in the studio was not to be repeated on the stage. Javier never saw Chamaco again after the sessions were over.
For the haunting cover, designer Ron Levine depicted a smiling Ramírez climbing out of a coffin in a crypt, illuminated by a ray of sunlight, which he says was inspired by the title that was given to him during production. The illustration was his idea and done in a spirit of fun. He did not know of Ramírez’s personal issues. For those who did know him well, it seemed the singer, who liked to tempt fate, was moving on a downward trajectory that would end badly. Yet no one knew how chillingly prophetic that depiction would be several years later when Ramírez ended up being murdered in an alleyway in the Bronx. It has been suggested by music producer Chris Soto that Chamaco’s vocal talent, freewheeling life, and violent death have certain similarities with several figures in rap, especially Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace) a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. This is particularly true as far as their final albums being an ironic commentary on their untimely demise (Biggie’s posthumous opus was titled Life After Death). Seen in a more positive light, Levine’s cover makes the point that a performer never dies as long as the music lives on.
The album opens with Curet Alonso’s “San Agustin,” an estampa (vignette) in the son montuno rhythm that salutes the colorful people of the barrio in the Puerta de Tierra section of San Juan, especially a bongo player, a bar owner, and a boxer. Picking up the pace, next is an update of “Rumba Moderna,” first made famous by Alberto Ruiz and Conjunto Kubavana in 1948. Chamaco changes the lyrics a bit to state that the inspiration for his “salsa moderna” comes from New York. “Cuando Manda El Corazón” urges one to follow the heart’s orders. What is most effective here is not so much the lyrics as it is the emotion with which Ramírez interprets the song. “Adivinalo” is a somewhat controversial party-oriented number penned by Chamaco. It’s a playful childish riddle (in slang terminology) about drug use at a house party. Be that as it may, it’s got an infectious swing. “Asi Son Bongo” is the most heavy duty dance track on the record. The song was composed years before by Joseíto Fernández of “Guajira Guantanamera” fame, but Chamaco makes it his own. The lyrics complain of a lover who has forgotten the protagonist once he is undeservedly thrown in jail, despite her promise to visit him on Sundays and to take him back when he gets out. Only his mother comes to visit him in that “damned prison” that is like a cemetery for him. “Kikiriki” uses the metaphor of cock-fighting, a blood sport beloved in Latin countries, to comment on Chamaco’s own sense of manhood. Ramírez then brings his soulful and suffering side sharply into focus with the torrid bolero “Respetala.” He implores his lover to scold him because he deserves it for being untrue to her, for being a Hell-raiser; he does not merit her forgiveness because he disrespected her honor. As in the best tradition of over-wrought bolero lyrics, he begs her to beat him, even kill him, if she wants, but to never leave him without her love. Back to the upbeat salsa with another self-penned number that describes a humorous vignette of a drunken bus driver. Chamaco’s playful rhyming and Vázquez’s happy piano conspire to keep things going in a party atmosphere. The album ends with a classic 1920s son montuno from Cuba, the Reinaldo Bolaños composition “Fanía Funché,” made famous by Conjunto Estrellas de Chocolate and covered by Johnny Pacheco on his 1964 album Cañonazo, the debut release from the label named for the song. Though the song’s lyrics contain many intriguing African words and so may elude a complete analysis, the basic gist seems to be an appeal to African deities for help in times of trouble.
Those nine tracks are Chamaco’s last will and testament, a diamond in the dirt to remember him by. This reissue will hopefully set the record straight and prove that Chamaco’s legacy is still Alive And Kicking.